Hey, Rob here. I don’t have a lot of background for this story, but here’s how it started: I was talking to a friend, about how when I heard the carbon monoxide detector beep because it needed a new battery, I thought we were going to die, and she said, “hey, that would make a great beginning to a story.” So here it is…
Listen to the Audio (14 min):
Read the Story (2,000 words / 8-minute read):
“Carbon Monoxide Detector”
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
The carbon monoxide detector is going off.
We’re going to die.
Kate rolls over and harrumphs, and tells me to go back to sleep, she doesn’t hear anything,
“You must be dreaming. Come on. Work tomorrow. Need some sleep.”
And so I roll over, and then back, and stare at the ceiling. I mean, it’s pitch black, so I can only assume the ceiling is there. There’s no moon tonight, so not even a single photon is hitting the back of my retinas. Any ceiling is in my imagination. But the sound is definitely there. A distant bweep bweep bweep, vibrating the little pads in my inner ears. I should go check it out. At least go down and open a window and maybe save our lives.
So I ease my legs over the edge of the bed, super careful not to creak the springs, and feel the floor meet my feet. Cold. Does carbon monoxide have a temperature? It is colder than normal? Warmer? Do your feet get colder or warmer right before you die? I shuffle toward the door, not daring to turn on a light, awkwardly reaching around for obstacles, for all I know I could have suddenly been stricken blind in the middle of the night, maybe that’s what happens right before you die, and of course I stub my toe on the dresser, it’s been there for years, I should know where the fucking edge of it is by now, and I’m pretty sure Kate hasn’t been getting up at three a.m. rearranging the furniture just to mess with me, so I just choke back a yelp of pain and fumble for the door.
Halfway down the stairs, I realize: my knee. Nothing. Huh. It’s funny, how the absence of a sensation can sort of be a sensation in itself. How nothing can be something. How you can sit in a room, let’s say between eating dinner and turning on Jeopardy!, and the stillness kind of hits you, the total lack of stimuli, your retinas and your inner ear pads and your taste buds and your nose cilia are all taking a well-deserved break, but there’s something there, something filling the space, you can feel it. And that something has a name: “nothing.” And there it is right now, again, nothing. My knee. No pain at all. It’s been killing me for weeks, and here I am taking the stairs like a rock climber. (Well, not like a rock climber, it’s been too many years, but you know what I mean.) It feels great. Not a great sensation by itself, but a great absence. Weird. I wonder if that happens right before you die.
I get down to the basement stairs and turn on a light, and even though we’re old enough to know better, don’t we always turn on the light without thinking? I do anyway. Every time. So I recoil as the blast from the fire of a thousand suns sears my eyeballs, and putting my hand in front my face feels as futile as putting my hand up to stop a nuclear blast.
And that’s when it happens.
As my eyes adjust, I reach out to the test-slash-reset button on the carbon monoxide detector, and I can see that it is, in fact, going off. The light is blinking red.
But… it is also, in fact, NOT going off. The light is blinking green.
It’s hard to describe, especially because I’m feeling a little dizzy now, woah, hard to put to words what it feels like when two opposite events seem to be happening at once, the dissonance of it. We live our entire lives one foot in front of the other, one second leading to the next, never questioning the perfectly linear thing that is our life, our timeline of existence, measured out in moments, always in a line, never side-by-side. Until now. It feels like trying to say “no” while you’re nodding your head “yes.” I wonder if maybe this is what Schrödinger’s cat felt like, being alive and dead at the same time? Maybe this is what quantum superposition feels like. In any case, it’s definitely not my favorite.
I sit down on the step, trying to get my bearings. Come on, focus. What would a rational, awake, calm person do?
I throw up.
Somehow that seems appropriate.
Actually, I threw “down,” down the stairs, so at least I don’t have to walk through it back up to the kitchen, where I desperately reach for the window for a breath of fresh, frigid, January air. I suck it in, and I can’t tell you how good it feels, filling my lungs with that cold air, that life.
And I notice an old woman, standing right outside my window, between my house and the renters next door. It’s still pitch black, but the garage lights are throwing off just enough photons to outline her.
I should scream, I guess. She’s just standing there, motionless, not looking at me, but aware of me, and it’s three a.m., of course, the hour where all the weird shit happens. But I think I’ve already had my shock of the night with the carbon monoxide detector, I’m strangely calm in the aftermath of that, so I just tap the window sill to get her attention.
“Can I, um, help you?” And for some reason I don’t wait for an answer, I can sense that this isn’t about me helping her, but that perhaps she can help me, so I ask her, already sure of the answer, “Am I in a dream?”
It was rhetorical, of course this is a dream. It has all the hallmarks: familiar environment but just slightly askew, a surreal aura around the whole thing, and a strange figure here to give me some kind of message. Yes, it’s a dream. Classic. That explains the knee. I’m in bed. I’m probably snoring.
But she says, “There are no such things as dreams.”
Hmmm. Okay. Just another layer in the dream, I tell myself. But I know I’m lying. The fresh air. The cold floor on my feet. The truth of the thing she just said. I know it. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end.
She moves her hands, as if she’s manipulating some kind of invisible keypad. “I’m not here to explain the workings of it all. Just enough for you to make a choice.”
“Choice? Hey, are you Lenny’s aunt? I’ve heard about you. What choice are you talking-“
Her eyes catch a glint of the garage light, now she’s looking directly at me, and I understand that my time for asking a million questions is never. She’s not Lenny’s aunt. And she’s all business.
“There are no dreams. When you sleep, you peer into your other lives. Infinite lives, infinite possibilities. All real. As real as the vomit you left on the stairs.”
“Hey. I was going to clean that up.”
“There’s been an anomaly. A superposition reversal. It happens.”
I slap my hand on the sill. “Quantum superposition! I knew it! Like the cat!”
She actually shakes her head. Continues. “Carbon monoxide is filling the house in the life you peered into. It could have happened here. It could have not happened there. A reversal.” She waits a moment. “Do you understand the choice?”
“I don’t know. Choosing where it should happen? Me or some other me? Are you telling the other me the same thing right now?”
“No. He is unconscious. He is dying.”
“Wait. No. I’m not choosing whether I live or die. Or that other me lives or dies. No way.”
“We make choices all day long, every day, that bring us nearer to life, or nearer to death.”
“Okay, but why this? Why now? Why not just let what happens happen?”
“Our understanding is that there is an element of will involved in causing a reversal anomaly. A subsequent act of will returns the superposition balance. Otherwise… technical things happen you wouldn’t understand.”
“An act of will, huh. Whatever. What if I don’t choose?”
“The choice not to choose is still a choice. That’s fine. But you don’t have much time.”
“Well, this sucks.” I look back into the house, at my life, and I tilt my head upstairs. “What about Kate?”
“She is dying too. In the other life.”
“Okay. Decision made then. Keep it as it is. Kate lives. So I live. That’s how it was supposed to happen anyway.”
And that’s it. She turns away from me and begins to walk toward the street, receding into the darkness.
Suddenly some feeling, some unbidden force, makes its way up from my gut – no, not more vomit – and tries to come out my mouth. It’s telling me don’t be afraid.
“But this isn’t fair,” I whisper back to it.
And the answer returns instantly, I already knew the answer: Fair is just another name for fear. And so I let go, just for a moment, a sliver of a fraction of a moment, and the unbidden force bursts out of my mouth and I shout, “Wait!”
The figure, nearly invisible in the dark, stops. Turns. I call out again. “What was SUPPOSED to happen?”
She shrugs her shoulders.
“Dammit,” I grumble, and I nod to her, and across the distance I can just make out her nodding too.
And in an instant she’s gone.
I walk back in through the kitchen, on some kind of autopilot, and climb the stairs, thinking well, that was stupid. If there are infinite me-s, then there are me-s dying all the time, right? What difference does saving one make? And for some reason that story pops into my head, the one on that cheesy plaque in the hallway growing up, my mom loved that plaque, with the story about the starfish drying up on a beach, thousands of them, and this kid is throwing them back in the water one by one. A guy walks buy and says, “Look at them all. You can’t possibly make a difference.” And the kid picks another starfish up and throws it back into the ocean and says, “it made a difference to that one.” I remember the plaque now, and the story, and my mom, and my whole life kind of floods in and fills up my lungs and my heart, and I smile. Well, at least now I now what happens right before you die.
I climb back into bed, not thinking about changing the trajectory of any of this, or calling the fire department, or running out of the house with Kate at least. No, I’m shuffling on the path I’ve chosen, the tracks have been laid, and I’m so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes open, and by the time I slide in next to Kate they’re closed, and I sigh a deep sigh, and my final thought is man, that other me better live an awesome life.
A crash wakes me up.
The window. It’s broken. There’s a rock on the floor.
I rush over to the window and look down.
It’s the old woman.
“Get Kate. Get out of the house. Now.”
“What? Why? I thought I chos-“
“Shut up. Just do it. It was the other you. When he regained consciousness, he made the same choice. You know, you two are going to be a big pain in my ass.”
I hope you enjoyed that short story. If you’ve been following my work at all, you might notice some of the things in this story that keep popping up story after story: First, death. I don’t feel like I’m morbid, and you don’t have to worry about me or anything, but I do think about life and death a lot, like I’m trying to decipher just what our short stint on this planet is all about, and what the transition of death might really be like, where it fits into the whole mystery of the universe. Second, the whole parallel dimensions thing. I dont’ know why, but I’m fascinated by it, and I can’t shake the feeling that this one single thread we live on might not be all there is. And lastly, people throwing up. I have no idea why, but having a character throw up is a go-to for me. Maybe I’m just juvenile. If you have a better explanation, let me know.
Okay, now the self-promo — thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the science fiction novels Where the Hell is Tesla?, Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff!, The Wrong Unit, and the #1 Audible Bestselling You’re Going to Mars! You can buy Volume 1 of the collected Listen To The Signal stories on Audible and Amazon, and find my other books there too, and get in touch here on the contact page or at RobDircks.com.
Copyright ©2023 Rob Dircks